Israel’s “Separation Wall” through the occupied West Bank separates human beings; that much we know. What isn’t so well-known, though, is that it also divides ancient ecological corridors; the Wall has a devastating effect on the environment and the population of land-dwelling mammals.
Slicing through the landscape, the Wall is made up of hundreds of kilometres of concrete and wire fencing, at some points three metres deep and eight metres high. The Israelis call it a “security fence”; some Palestinians refer to it as an “Apartheid Wall”.
The Wall is mostly completely impenetrable and one must cross though heavily guarded military checkpoints. In this, it has been successful in its main purpose of redefining human relations by separating Israelis and Palestinians.
However, it is not only human beings which the Wall has played a critical role in segregating. Spare a thought for the smaller non-human animal species, those which have no political agenda. Those animals which once roamed free across the West Bank landscape are now also confined to either side of the barrier.
Animals have been passing through these lands for millennia, migrating according to the seasons, and dispersing plant seeds along the way, thus ensuring the vitality of this ancient ecological corridor. Ever since Israel’s started to build the Wall in 2000, though, these migratory routes have been disrupted and halted abruptly, cutting animals off from their native feeding and breeding grounds. Causing devastation to the environment and driving many species to the brink of extinction, the Israeli Wall and occupation are two of the biggest threats to animals and the environment in the West Bank today.
The Wall follows an ecological corridor running from the Judean Mountains in the south to the Sumerian Mountains in the north, creating an east-west barrier. The shape of the barrier as it snakes around the occupied Palestinian territory also cuts off north-south migration, further damaging the functionality of the ranges as an ecological passage for animals.
According to Israeli ecologist Ron Frumkin, this separation is one of the leading issues which animals and the environment face today, where the Wall itself becomes an ecological barrier. “The main impact is for animals who require movement between different territories such as feeding sites or nesting sites, especially large animals, but can’t get through. I’m talking about mammals especially and the largest are more vulnerable.”
These barriers create small pockets of micro populations of animals. Frumkin describes how the Wall can have devastating effects on animal populations as they interbreed with each other as a result of having their larger populations split. “[The Wall] causes smaller populations of animals to remain on both sides of the fence. The smaller the population size, the less healthy it is, being more vulnerable to extinction due to interbreeding.”
The Director of the Palestinian Wildlife Society, Imad Atrash, says that the Wall is affecting animal life beyond the more obvious destruction of the landscape, vegetation and habitats. “As far as animal husbandry is concerned, when the Wall was built some of the males and females were on opposite sides,” he points out. This, obviously, makes their population less sustainable.
In a report delivered to the Palestinian Authority in 2010 on the impact of Israeli land annexation and expansion of the Wall on the Palestinian environment, the society identified 16 animal species facing extinction as a direct result of the barrier. “Animals like the red fox and gazelles, wolves and moles,” explains Atrash. “Even some birds, like the stone curlew, chukar and all lark species. These are all under threat of extinction.”
Separation by the Wall, however, is not the only aspect of the Israeli occupation which is affecting the native biodiversity. The continued building of settlements and road infrastructure are all leading to severe restrictions on animal movement which is sending many species of both local flora and fauna to the brink of extinction.
The number of Palestinian mountain gazelles, for example, has fallen dramatically in the past 15 years, with only 2,000 left in the wild. This is attributed directly to the loss of habitat due to construction as well as predation and collisions with cars.
“The flora and fauna in Palestine are threatened not only because of the Separation Wall, but also the bypass roads and the Israeli settlements,” notes Atrash. “We can replant the area around the Wall to keep the habitat and vegetation the same as before, but this is long term, and it is not easy when the Israelis only follow environmental implementations for Israel, and not the West Bank.”
He accuses the Israeli government of illegal deforestation as it builds settlements and the infrastructure of occupation. “They [Israelis] have burned forests between Bethlehem and Jerusalem, and they built settlements, because they are not allowed to cut any trees down in Israel. But here, they burn our national parks.”
Deforestation to clear land for the Jewish settlement of Har Homa (Jabal Abu Ghneim in Arabic), which lies between Jerusalem and Beit Sahour, has led to the destruction of a native stork population. “The remaining birds,” says Atrash, “now only live between the houses in Beit Sahour because their natural habitat and migration route has been destroyed.”
There is hope, however, for the smaller animal species which need to get past the concrete barrier. In several sections of the Wall, Israel has allowed s-shaped passages to be kept open where animals are able to pass through.“The idea was that once you create the fence you ensure that every several hundred metres or so you provide places where small and medium size mammals can pass through,” reasons Frumkin. “Obviously, it is something you should plan in a way that a fox can go through, but not a child or a thin person.”
The problem with such passages, Atrash argues, is that the larger animals get left behind. “Anything larger than a hare or rabbit is threatened. The gazelles, hyenas, porcupines; all are threatened because of Israel. The Israelis don’t care about the natural world in Palestine.”
The solution is far from simple. Both Atrash and Frumkin are pessimistic about the future for many local mammal populations and the subsequent impact on the environment.
“Some animals could well face local extinction,” concludes Frumkin. “I wouldn’t say global extinction, but locally some may well disappear. The solution is obviously removing the fence and creating peace.”
He believes that it is all a question of politics. “If the political situation improves, I have to say that even if there is peace it doesn’t mean the situation, or status of the wildlife, will be much better. It could be worse in some respects, because peace means much more development. Either way you look at it, it’s not encouraging.”
“We only have one environment to share, and we have to take responsibility for it. On both sides.”
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.